A handful of years ago, building a sustainable, responsible wardrobe seemed like a “nice” thing to do. Fast forward to today, and it is the only thing to do if you are serious about respecting our planet, her people, and a healthy future for us all.
The Book That Started it All for Me
In early 2021, I read the book Fashionopolis by Dana Thomas, which fully opened my eyes to the urgent need for greater responsibility. At that time, I made a “better quality” pledge that I shared on Episode 31 of my podcast. As I said in that episode: “I can’t solve the huge problem of too many garments or too much fast fashion, but I can do what I can.” Can I get an amen? Each of us doing a little something amounts to a great deal done as a group!
My Sustainable Brand Posts
As I began to track sustainable companies last year, my list grew so long that I was forgetting more names than I was remembering from my list! This is a good problem and encouraging that so many companies are operating ethically. I’ve shared several lists of responsible brands on my blog. My Favorite Sustainable Denim post is here. My Favorite Sustainable Brands blog post is here. Sustainable Shoes, Bags and More blog post is here.
Another Book Adds to My Knowledge
This year, I read The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. If you have a discount store habit (Ross, T.J. Maxx, etc.), you need to read one or both of these books. As you will learn below, our “good deal” is a horrifying deal for the clothing makers.
How the Book is Organized
The Conscious Closet is broken into parts full of practical ways to create a more conscious closet: Part One: Goodbye, Fast Fashion; Part Two: The Art of Less; Part Three: The Art of More; Part Four: The Sustainable Fashion Handbook; Part Five: Make it Last and Part Six: The Fashion Revolution.
How Much of Our Clothing We Wear
Some of what stands out to me in Cline’s book are tidbits like this: We are deluded about how much of our wardrobe we wear. We think it’s about 43% when it is actually about 18%. And this tidbit: About 1/3 of our wardrobe we have either never worn or have not in a year.
Why do we have all these things and not wear them? There are many answers to this question, not the least being we fail to plan our wardrobe and buy on impulse or when an occasion arises. Sometimes we simply don’t know how to wear certain pieces or what to wear them with. These are your closet orphans. If you need help working with your closet orphans, message me. I can help!
#1 Reason the Tags are Still On
The most common reason we never wear a piece is because we got it home and realized it wasn’t right. However, we find it hard to let go of it because of what we spent on it. To this, Cline says, “Ignore money. Even if you spent a lot for it, if you don’t like it, toss it.” I agree. As I learned from Marie Kondo’s book, pieces we buy but never wear have already done their work for us. They gave us a thrill when we purchased it, and it taught us what not to buy next time. End of story. Let it go.
Less is Truly More – Capsule Dressing
Something else that stood out to me in the book are how few pieces we need to create various outfits. I’ve known about the capsule wardrobe concept for many years through my job as a wardrobe consultant. However, I have never personally put it to the test, preferring to have many options. Cline uses an app called Cladwell. From a 31-piece wardrobe, Cladwell calculates 375 combinations, enough for a new outfit every day of the year and then some. Have you ever counted how many pieces of clothing you own? I bet for most of us, it is many more than 31 pieces.
Do You Throw Clothes in the Trash?
A statistic in Cline’s book which turned my stomach is in 2013, we threw away 23.8 billion pounds of clothes, about 73 pounds per person. That was almost a decade ago. I wonder what the current amount is. More often than not, these pieces can be recycled and repurposed, even in torn or over-used condition. A few of my favorite recyclers: I like using Knickey for my underwear (they take men’s and kids’, too), and Retold Recycling takes your unsellable textiles. ThredUp, an online clothing reseller, takes your cast offs, and anything they can’t sell is turned over to textile recyclers, keeping your clothes out of landfill. Many of your local charities sell what they can’t sell to rag traders.
The #1 Thing to Do Before You Donate
As I learned in the book, most of the clothing donated to charities goes overseas to clothing resellers in Africa who buy clothing by the bundles for their businesses. That said, please wash the clothes you donate! No one can sell (or wants to buy) dirty clothes! These people buy the bundles packaged up, and they can’t tell the clothing isn’t sellable until they open the bundle. An increasing number of these businesses are struggling to make ends meet because the quality of donations is declining.
Guess what happens to the clothes the resellers can’t sell? THEY GO TO LANDFILL. You would not believe the massive landfills in Africa with toxic fumes rising from them from our clothing cast offs. We must be more mindful not only of what we buy but also of what and how we donate our clothing once we are done with them.
We Have an Overproduction Problem
One of the most frustrating things to me regarding our fashion dilemma is the over-production of goods. Cline shares in her book that in 2018, about 2.2 billion pounds of overstock was either landfilled or incinerated. My head spins to think of how well-dressed our poor population could be if these companies would simply donate these items. Why don’t they?! The answer: the brands are looking after themselves. They’d rather destroy products than have them wind up in the hands of people who can sell them for less and devalue the brand. Burberry was caught destroying unsold products in 2018, and Greenpeace got on the case. Once pressured, Burberry pledged to stop incinerating products.
What Garment Workers Make
China is the world’s largest clothing manufacturer. Their workers make about $600 per month, some of the highest paid in the industry. The garment works in Bangladesh, our second largest manufacturer, make about $95 per month, one-fourth of a living wage. Garment workers in India, our third largest manufacturer, make $130 per month, less than half of a living wage.
Here in the United States, Los Angeles is the largest part of our garment industry where 85% of the factories inspected violated labor laws according to a 2016 Labor Department investigation. Many of the workers in these factories are undocumented immigrants making $4 per hour making clothing for Ross, T.J. Maxx, Forever 21 and Fashion Nova, among others.
Italy, well-regarded in the garment industry, is not immune from similar problems. A New York Times investigation in 2018 found thousands sewing garments for $1 euro per hour (about $1.15). Poorly-paid Chinese immigrants toil in thousands of Italian factories for mass-market and fast fashion brands. The numbers go on and on across the world, all of them appalling. Top fashion CEOs make in 4 days what it would take an average garment worker to make in their entire lifetime.
How Much Does Paying a Living Wage Add to the Garment’s Cost?
Most fashion consumers when asked said they would be glad to pay more for a garment to assure the garment worker is paid a living wage. You would not believe how little more it adds to a garment’s cost. A 1-4% price increase is all that is needed.
A U.S.-owned factory in the Dominican Republic, Alta Gracia, has paid their workers a living wage since 2010. This factory makes most of the sweats for college and sports teams. The Dallas Cowboys are a big client. Alta Gracia pays three times more than the local minimum wage. This higher wage adds 90 cents to the price of a sweatshirt.
The Brands Hold the Power Card
If the cost to pay a living wage is so little on the total cost of a garment, why aren’t our garment workers making a living wage? The power lies in the hands of the brands and retailers. They set the price. The factory owners are pressured to keep costs low to keep the business. If they don’t, they lose the contract. The brand will go elsewhere. This makes me very angry, and this is where pressure on the brands is needed. No one making our clothing should be suffering for it.
What We Can Do
We can put our money into things we want to survive and into brands who treat people and the planet well. I may not be able to control what happens in a clothing factory, but I can source sustainable brands and place my investment there. To find reputable brands, I use an app called Good On You, the source for fashion’s most trusted sustainability ratings.
I enjoyed a post by Good On You this year about steps to take to make your closet more climate-conscious. Many of their steps are also covered in Cline’s book including caring for the clothing you have, wearing what you own, air drying and washing less often, and donating responsibly. Read the full post here. See a full library of great posts from Good On You here.
Most of the time, we don’t need more, we simply need to be more creative with what we already have. I can be a second set of eyes for you. Instead of buying something new, invest in time with me so we can create many outfits without anything new coming into your closet. That is the greatest way to have a conscious closet.
When you are ready to buy something new, don’t settle. Take it from Nina…
Buy what is truly fantastic.Nina Garcia